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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Taking Great Family Vacation Photos: An Ode to my Photographer

Today's post I've been meaning to write for a very long time now just because it's so fun. In fact, I might just make a series out of it. Everyone sees our travel pictures all over social media, but what most people don't get to see is the struggle to take these amazing photographs. When I started my blog, I knew I was a very visual person. While content is definitely important, pictures are what attract me to most of my favorite blogs. Luckily for me, I had the picture part covered from day 1 on my blog because I have Jaime.

As you may know if you've read my About page, Jaime takes most of the pictures you see on this blog, with the exception of iPhone pictures. He always finds the right angles, knows the right settings, and herds us all into position like sheep when we take group shots. Today is his birthday and this post is dedicated to him not only for being a great husband but also for taking the charge of documenting the entire family's most important moments.

Sometime during our NYC trip last year, I realized I could get some pretty funny pictures of Jaime taking pictures of me or setting up the camera to take pictures of us. This is how this idea of a behind-the-scenes post series was born.

For the last year, I've collected a good amount of pictures of all the things we've done in pursuit of the perfect picture. For Jaime's birthday, I decided it would be a great time to finally share the pictures you don't see on my regular blog posts. Happy birthday, Jaime (since I ruined the your real birthday present surprise, I hope you enjoy this little surprise instead).

Without further ado, going behind the scenes of My Napoleon Complex's blog:

From Left to Right, Top to Bottom:
1. Jaime & Joaquin taking a picture of Carolina at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington D.C. (2013)
2. Taking a picture of the Capitol at sunset from the middle of the road. (2013)
3. Taking a picture of me in Williamsburg, VA. I was on some kind of pedestal. (2013)
4. Setting up the camera to take an HDR picture of Thomas Jefferson's house, Monticello in VA. (2013)
5. Taking a picture of Venice from San Giorgio Maggiore. (2014)
6. Taking a picture of me at the Vatican Museum with the crowds getting in our way. (2013)
7. Taking a picture of the Tuscan countryside. (2014)
8. Taking a picture of JFK's grave in Arlington Cemetery, VA. (2013)
9. Taking a picture of a garden in Cordoba, Spain. (2014)

Taking the perfect shot of Manarola, Cinque Terre. (2014)
One of my favorites and the beginning of this obsession. Taking a picture of taxis in NYC. He went for three consecutive red lights trying to get the perfect shot. (2013)
1. Taking a picture of his parents in front of Tidal Basin, Washington D.C. (2013)
2. Getting an HDR picture of my best friend, Lauren, and I in the Lincoln Memorial (2013)
3. Taking a picture of my stepbrother holding the Washington Monument in the palm of his hand (2013)
4. Taking a picture of David. (2014)
5. Taking pictures of Arya for her doggie passport. You can imagine how long this took. (2013)
6. Taking a picture of me in front of the Capitol. (2013)
Sunset picture of Castel Sant'Angelo and St. Peter's.
Not sure what he was trying to get a picture of in this one to be honest. 

1. Taking a picture of the World War II Memorial Fountain and the Washington Monument. (2013)
2. Taking a picture of St. Peter's before the Christmas tree was removed while under the pouring rain. (2014)
3. Setting up the camera to take a picture of us in Cordoba, Spain. (2014)
4. Taking a picture of the Alhambra, Spain. (2014)

1. Taking pictures of Marines in front of the Marine Memorial. (2013)
2. Setting up camp at Top of the Rock in NYC to get the perfect blue hour picture of the Empire State building. (2013)
3. Taking a picture of the Empire State. We were there for two hours! (2013)
4. Taking an HDR picture of us at the Lincoln Memorial. (2013)
5. Blue hour picture of Vernazza, Cinque Terre. (2013)
6. Picture of a picture. (2013)
7. Taking a picture of us in Turin. (2013)
8. Walking around NYC in a hurry before blue hour! (2013)
9. Setting up for the iconic (at least to me it is) picture of us in front of the Colosseum. (2013)
One of my favorites: holding up the line at the Knights of Malta to get a picture of St. Peter's through the keyhole. (2013)

I'd also like to take the time to share some of my tips on taking great family vacation photos (or any special occasion photos). I am no expert, in fact for anything remotely technical about picture-taking you'd have to ask Jaime. He's not a professional by any means, but photography is his hobby and he's gotten very good at it throughout the years. Along the way, I've also picked up a few very basic, very beginner tips on how to take better pictures.

Disclaimer: Once again, I am not an expert, this is just some of the things we do that works for us. 

1. Camera. A few years ago I would have said, eh, a camera is a camera. Well, it's not. We primarily use a Canon EOS Rebel T3, but we also have one of those cute little point-and-shoot Canon PowerShots that we take when we need a water-proof camera. I hate this camera. No matter what settings you use, pictures don't come out anywhere near the vicinity of our bigger Canon. If you want proof, check out my post on the dog beach near Rome from last year.

2. Learn your camera. Buying an expensive camera is only half the battle though. It does you absolutely no good if you have it on Automatic all the time. Jaime wasn't born knowing all the settings on his camera, he just took the time to read through the instructions manual at the very least, and a few web tutorials wouldn't hurt either. After, start practicing!

3. Tripod. Or, in Italian, cavaletto. This is our biggest secret with the greatest impact on our photography. How many times have you been somewhere and you ask someone to take a picture of you and, no matter how much the person tries, the picture just kinda...sucks? Well, solve your problems with a tripod. Sure, you have to carry it with you and set it up every single time you want a group picture, but I promise you, you will be so much happier with your pictures because you took the time to center it just how you wanted it.

4. Patience. I like taking pictures and I like having quality pictures after the suitcases are unpacked and our day to day life continues. So, most of the time, it's no big deal for me to wait two hours for exactly the perfect moment to take a sunset picture, or wake up at an ungodly hour to get a sunrise picture, or spend 15 minutes standing in front of a tripod to get the perfect shot of Arya actually looking at the camera (all of this are things we do on a regular basis). But I've also traveled with people that have no interest in taking photographs, but then lament themselves when they have nothing to look at after they go back home. You just need to be patient because when you start taking good pictures, you have no idea how you ever lived without them before.

5. Research. Finally, this is something that I do mostly and I don't know if other people do it too. Before we leave for our next destination, I go on Flickr or other blogs to see some of the best places from where to take pictures. There's been quite a few times when we've found places that we might not have known about with a great view. Google is your friend, use it.

I hope you've enjoyed this post and gotten a few tips out of it, hopefully you won't be as embarrassed about being those annoying tourists taking forever to get a picture, as it's more than obvious we do it all the time (and I have no regrets about it). To Jaime: hope you liked this long-time-coming post, the only thing that's a surprise on your birthday. I love you!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Cinque Terre, Part 2: Vernazza & Manarola

I am a little upset I haven't been able to post anything in a week. For those of you that follow me on Instagram (and if you don't, hint hint) you'd know we are not in Rome, but in a wonderful beach town in Liguria, Lerici, just a stone's throw away from Cinque Terre (coincidentally enough). We brought the laptop but Jaime's been working so he's needed it and I, unfortunately, must make do without it and instead spend my time doing such tedious things as going to the beach. Woe is me.

Today, I have the laptop though and I can't really complain too much when this is my view as I'm writing this:

Continuing on our journey through Cinque Terre, after our beach day in Monterosso al Mare, we went back to the hotel, took showers and headed out to have dinner in Vernazza.

Vernazza is the fourth village of the Cinque Terre (heading north) and still remains one of the truest fishing villages of the entire Italian Riviera. There are quite a few sights to see such as the Church of Santa Margherita d'Antiochia or the Doria Castle, if you're into that sort of stuff. As for us, Cinque Terre was the pause between museums, so we just wanted to walk around, go to the beach, and eat seafood.

We had dinner at a restaurant called Al Castello. We had good food at a higher price than we like, but we splurged because the restaurant had an amazing view. After dinner, we went out in search of a good location to take a blue hour picture of Vernazza.

We didn't take the classic picture of the Vernazza harbor from above (which I am assuming is taken from one of the hiking trails between the villages), mainly because we just didn't have enough time before the sky turned black to find the trail and walk the appropriate distance. Instead, we went on a path around the church into the rocks of the harbor and took a picture from across the water.

iPhone panoramic.

Jaime's money shot. 
The next day, our last day in Cinque Terre, we decided to explore Manarola in the morning and Riomaggiore in the afternoon.

Manarola is the second village heading north and possibly the prettiest, in my opinion. It had a great view at the start of one of the trails and we took full advantage of it.

When Carolina is around, we get to take some really lovey-dovey pictures.

The second money shot. 

Before heading out to Riomaggiore, we had a light lunch of fresh fried seafood, which was honestly spectacular. Cinque Terre is known for their anchovies and whether you have them fried or with lemon, it is absolutely delicious (and I didn't even like anchovies before Cinque Terre).

Jaime has an angel face in this picture but his hand is saying: "Let go of my food!!!"
I have something different for my next post later on the week (it's already scheduled, so hopefully there won't be any technical issues with Blogger), but after that I will round out our adventures in Cinque Terre with some sunset pictures of Riomaggiore, and also some tips on how to make the most of your time and money in the Italian Riviera! Stay tuned!

For more posts on Cinque Terre, check out:

Monday, September 22, 2014

Beach Day in Cinque Terre

Picture this: It's June or July and you're on the trip of a lifetime in Italy. You've been to Rome and seen all the architecture, you've been to Florence and seen all the art, but by this point it's hot and if you have to go to another museum with no air conditioning you might just get a heatstroke. So what do you do? 

Go to the beach, of course!

As Jaime constantly reminds me, Italy is basically a peninsula of culture, a lifetime is not enough to see every museum with artifacts, architecture, and art that showcases some of the best aspects of human history. 

Fine, I get it. 

But I'm also human and sometimes I just want to go somewhere where there's not much to do except lay around, drink a cold alcoholic beverage, and soak in the prettiness. Is there anything wrong with that? 

Where I'm going with this is that if you're looking for just pretty, look no further than Cinque Terre. I've been dying to share our pictures with you guys.  Cinque Terre is made up of five villages in the Ligurian coast: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. After our 24 hours in Milan,  we spent the weekend exploring Cinque Terre, visiting Monterosso and Vernazza one day and Manarola and Riomaggiore the next day. Unfortunately we just didn't have the time to visit Corniglia, but there's always next time, at least for Jaime and I :). 

Today, I'm going to share our pictures of our day in Monterosso, the village with the most extensive sand beach in Cinque Terre. The beach was great, the water was very blue, but very deep, and the sand was not fine, but pebbly. Regardless we had a great time, and Carolina and I had the best fresh fruit cocktails I've ever had. I've spent the past 15 minutes looking for the name of the place, but I can't find it anywhere. Then I looked in Google Earth and found the place but it doesn't even have a name. I don't think you can miss it though, because it's beach front and advertises its fresh cocktails all over the place. It's also next to a pharmacy, if that helps. 

Without further ado, here's some of our pictures:

This is your first view right off the train station!
Chillin' & Relaxin'
Well, except for Jaime, who reads Machiavelli's The Prince...in Italian! 

On the right is my "oh sh** it's cold" face
Cinque Terre Love 
Look how happy we are!
One of my favorite pictures of the day: Carolina's hair against the sand. Yes, it's that red. 
Strawberry Daiquiri & Piña Coladas: the best ever!
I'm obsessed with bougainvillea and in Monterosso they were everywhere!
Enjoying those drinks!
Stay tuned for the rest of the villages' posts later on this week!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

24 hours in Milan!

In my previous post about my brother and sister-in-law’s trip to Italy, I talked about some of the things we did that weekend in Rome. We focused mostly on the Vatican, spending our time visiting the Vatican Museum and Garden, St. Peter’s Basilica and its dome, and they were lucky enough to attend the annual papal mass celebrating St. Peter and St. Paul, the patron saints of Rome (eventually I will get to writing a post on how you can reserve tickets to a papal mass).

After, Carolina and Joaquin took a train to Venice on their own, then we met up with them in…Milan!

Love this panoramic Joaquin took on his iPhone: Carolina & I waiting for Versace's opening, going into Prada (we can only wish), and leaving Louis Vuitton. 
I had been dying to visit Milan, of course, because I’m a girl and Milan is known for being Italy’s fashion capital. Jaime was less excited about it. We agreed to spend only 24 hours in Milan for a few reasons: 1) Carolina and Joaquin only had a limited amount of time to see a lot of things, and 2) we weren’t able to reserve tickets to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper in the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie (I cannot stress this enough, you must reserve your tickets three months in advance to even have a hope of seeing it).

We arrived in late afternoon, picked up Carolina and Joaquin at the train station, then hit up the Navigli district to find some good aperitivo for a cheap dinner. Northern Italy, specially the Piedmont and Lombardy regions, are known for their amazing aperitivi before dinner, where for the price of a drink you get access to a huge buffet of delicious Italian food. If you’re on a budget, you can really save a ton on dinner by timing yourself to go to aperitivi.

Milan's canal. The World Cup was still going on at that time so they had some cool things for kids. 
I didn’t know about the Navigli district until I started researching what to see in Milan, but for those of you who don’t know, Venice isn’t the only Italian city with canals—even if it’s by far the most famous. Milan also boasts its own canals (I use the plural loosely, as it’s really only two or maximum three) once built to navigate the city. Today, they are not used for the same purpose, but the area has become a pretty cool place with many restaurants lining the canals and young crowds hanging out.

The next day we toured the Milan Cathedral. It is the largest cathedral in Italy; one of Italy’s most recognized landmarks, and one of the main reasons one goes to Milan, of course. Some of the highlights include the statue of Saint Batholomew Flayed, the saint carrying his skin over his shoulder (unfortunately, we have no pictures from inside the cathedral because you had to pay a fee to use the camera and the dim lighting rendered pictures worthless). Another interesting tidbit was a small red light bulb above the apse where one of the supposed nails from the Crucifixion of Christ is placed. The nail is displayed to the public once a year during a special celebration.

We actually took this picture the night before we visited, but I like it better than the one we took during the day.
After we took a stroll through Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, right next to the duomo. Apart from the stores from some major fashion houses that are totally drool-worthy, it is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls and a predecessor of the modern enclosed mall. Once you walk through the Galleria, you reach a little plaza on the other side with the famous La Scala Theater.

The faces of happy girls in their element. Jaime says my biggest wish is to come out of a mall, Gossip Girl style, with my arms full of designer bags....he's kind of right, but shhh!
I mentioned before that the Milan Cathedral is one of the main reasons people go to Milan, but I had another reason: la Cotoletta alla Milanese. Everyone knows this dish, even if it goes by different names: the Wiener Schnitzel in Germany, the Bistec a la Milanesa in Latin American countries, etc. The Italian dish, usually a breaded veal cutlet, influenced all of these variations. This is one of my favorite dishes ever (I’m a big fan of breaded and fried) and I had been looking forward to getting to eat it in its birthplace.

Jaime, knowing how important this was to me, found on an Italian site a list of the best restaurants in Milan to eat cotoletta alla Milanese. The restaurant was called Da Martino, a little out of the way of the center of the city, but totally worth the extra walk and metro ride. It was a small place, unpretentious, and full of men in business suits and Italian nonnas having their lunch.

As a first dish we shared amongst the four of us two plates of risotto alla Milanese. Let me tell you, I was converted. I had never really liked risotto before Italy and I even had it once in Rome and it still didn’t impress me. This risotto, however, was excellent. It tasted great and with the parmeggiano over it, it was simply heavenly. It was lucky that we decided to share because once the star of the day came in, la cotoletta, we were floored by its size. It was so big that it barely fit on the plate! But it was the tastiest, juiciest (even though they don’t serve it with lemon, like the Cuban version I’m used to), cotoletta I have ever eaten. I still dream about this place. In fact, Da Martino became one of my favorite restaurants I’ve been to in Italy.

Note the tomatoes with some herbs over them. Those were some of the most delicious tomatoes I have ever eaten in my life.
We took a long walk to our car after and continued on to our next destination, which was a good thing because we needed the nap (except for our poor DD, Jaime) after being so stuffed. It would have been a sin to leave any of that delicious cotoletta, though.

The faces of four people who are beyond happy at how stuffed they are. 
All in all, I can’t say that Milan, other than for its delicious signature dishes, really impacted me enough. In fact, I’d say that if you’re making a first trip to Italy, it shouldn’t be on your priority list. However, that being said, Jaime and I will probably make a return trip to visit the Last Supper, which is a UNESCO site after all, and maybe to see an opera production at La Scala (if we can justify spending an absurd amount of money on tickets). Either way, next year Milan will be hosting the world Expo, so it will definitely be an interesting time to visit!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rome's River Tracks, Our Night Out on the Town

When Domenico and his girlfriend Simona reached out to me to join them for a night on their River Tracks boat, I was flattered but really did not know what to expect. I had never heard of this particular Tevere excursion and some of our Italian friends even told us that they were completely unaware tourist boats were allowed on the Tevere (they ended up being extremely wrong about this).

Domenico explained how he was born and raised in the U.S. but has lived in Rome since the early 2000's. Self-proclaimed "starving musician", he started Tram Tracks last year, where he takes his guests out on a tram all over Rome, while including dinner, all-you-can-drink wine, and music provided by himself and his band. This year they extended Tram Tracks to include River Tracks, which is the same idea but on a boat along Rome's Tevere.

Domenico and I 

Jaime and I accepted their invitation and a few weeks back we got a chance to experience Domenico's River Tracks. Like I said earlier, I didn't know what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised. We met just in front of La Isola Tiberina, a little island that's right in the middle of the river and waited patiently for the boat (yacht? I'm not very familiar with nautical terms) to arrive. Suddenly, we heard distant music and Domenico and Simona sail by on their boat, already waving and singing and dancing.

The arrival of Domenico and Simona
They welcomed everybody on the boat and we already had pasta and antipasti waiting for us, our places marked with cute vinyls with our names on it. Without further ado, our night began with music, dinner, and later picture-taking on deck while we passed by some sights. The boat sailed all the way to Castel Sant'Angelo, where we were able to get off for a little while and take some pictures and dance.

Honestly, we very much enjoyed the whole night. Everybody was having a great time and some people seemed like it wasn't the first time they had been on River Tracks. Domenico, Simona, and their band had endless energy and they sang a little English and a little Italian, but always oldies (but goodies). It really was a great way to see Rome by night, especially during the summer with the warm weather and the Lungo il Tevere happening simultaneously. Meaning after you get off River Tracks, you can continue your party or shop in the many shops and restaurants set up along the river for the summer.

The tents of Lungo il Tevere from the boat. 
For more information and to book your night on River Tracks or Tram Tracks, visit their site here.

Disclaimer: Jaime and I were guests of River Tracks, but all our opinions (and pictures) are our own. Unless specifically stated, all the hotels, restaurants, and attractions I mention on this site do not compensate me for anything I write (one can only wish).